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Mickey Mouse Club Reunion at D23

The original Mickey Mouse club pre-dates me, but I remember it in re-runs. Who doesn't know the theme song written by a little known actor? On the last day of D23 Expo in the Anaheim Convention Center, nine of the original Mouseketeers were re-united for the panel presentation "Celebrating Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club60 Magical Years." Movie critic Leonard Maltin also made a surprise appearance.

The author of "The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book," Lorraine Santoli, hosted this reunion of the original Mouseketeers and the panel featured Sherry Alberoni, Sharon Baird, Bobby Burgess, Tommy Cole, Darlene Gillespie, Cubby O’Brien, and Doreen Tracey, along with actors for the serial "Spin and Marty," Tim Considine (Spin Evans) and David Stollery (Marty Markham).

"The Mickey Mouse Club" ran from 1955 to 1959 and had a total of 39 Mouseketeers. The main cast members belonged to the red team, but there was also a blue and white team. There were originally three adult co-hosts: Jimmie Dodd, Roy Williams and Bob Amsberry (Season 1-2). Each weekday had a theme: Mondays was Fun with Music Day. Tuesdays were Guest Star Day. Wednesdays were Anything Can Happen Day. Thursdays were Circus Day. Fridays were Talent Round-up Day.

Walt Disney had wanted regular kids, but these kids had to sing and dance. Burgess recalled that when he auditioned, he "had a gimmick." He didn't sing, but he tried a barefoot jazz dance. That got him in. Burgess would later win a dance contests and make appearances on "The Lawrence Welk Show."

O'Brien came from a performing family. His gimmick: he was a drummer like his father and older brother. But it also helped, he explained, that he and fellow Mouseketeer Karen Pendleton looked good together. The audience was treated to a clip showing Cubby drumming with his father Haskell "Hack" O'Brien and Warren O'Brien (Cubby has another older brother, Haskell Jr. who plays the trumpet). O'Brien told the audience that his father had just turned 100 this year. After he hung up his mouse ears when the show ended, he continued to work as a drummer eventually working Broadway and touring with people like Tony Award-winner Bernadette Peters.

Gillespie commented that she came down to the auditions with three other girls from a San Gabriel dance school and performed a farm dance. When asked if she could sing, she bravely volunteered that she could and sang the theme song for the 1954 Disney movie "Davy Crockett."

When Alberoni joined, the show had already been on for a year and she remembers sitting on the floor in front of the television with her brother wearing those plastic mouse ears. It was her brother who got a call to audition, but his gimmick was already taken by Cubby. Brother Roy could play drums and tap dance, but his sister could play the trumpet and tap dance and he recommended her. Now that's one good brother.

Cole was the only person from his western swing band ensemble that was chosen when they auditioned. His gimmick was he could sing and play the accordion. His mother would end up working at the studio as the welfare guardian for other child actors such as Don Grady who would go on to the TV series, "My Three Sons." Grady then was known as Grati and was on the blue team for the third season.

Tracey explained that the studio couldn't accommodate all of the parents and kids on the set so the mothers would wait in another part of the studio and knit or play cards and would have lunch with their kids before the kids would go back to the on-site school or to work on the set. "It made you feel you were independent and you were responsible. All the mothers became friends."

"The Mickey Mouse Club" premiered Oct. 3, 1955 and was a variety show for children which had a newsreel, a cartoon, serials, and singing and dancing. It was an immediate success. The theme, "The Mickey Mouse Club March,"  was written by Jimmie Dodd, one of two adult performers and the Head Mouseketeer. He would later compose the theme song for the TV series "Zorro" and some theme music for "Walt Disney Presents: Annette."

Dodd composed about 30 songs for the show and because he was deeply religious, he often composed songs that had strong moral lessons. Dodd unfortunately died in 1964 soon after he was hospitalized while working on a new show. The other two adults who were on the show have also passed away. Roy Williams, the inventor of those mouse ears, passed away in 1976 and was originally an animator for Disney. (Bob Amsberry who was a songwriter as well was only a cast member for the first two seasons. He died in 1957 in an auto accident.) All of the Mouseketeers on stage had fond memories of both Dodd and Williams, but they said it was Dodd who really made the show what it was.

One of the songs Dodd wrote for "The Mickey Mouse Club" was "Annette" for Annette Funicello. Santoli recalled that Funicello was "America's sweetheart." A clip of Dodd singing and Funicello dancing with Burgess to the song was shown on the screen. The mood of the audience was silently respect for Funicello who passed away in 2013 from multiple sclerosis-related complications.

Because Burgess and Dodd resembled each other, they performed a dance number called "Father and Son." Burgess got up to perform on stage while his performance with Dodd was shown on the main screen and his performance on stage was projected on to the two side screens. 

Similarly, Sherry Alberoni and Sharon Baird performed their parts as the musical number "Sometimes There Just Ain't No Fish" with them and Karen Pendleton played on the main back screen. (Pendleton was paralyzed in an auto accident and was not on stage or in the audience).

Good friends Considine and Stollery came on stage to recall their roles in the series "Spin and Marty." The series was about a western-style summer camp where a snotty rich kid, Marty (Stollery), meets and eventually becomes friends with the athletic and popular Spin (Considine).

There was a lot of love on stage and by today's standards, the show might seem corny but it was hugely popular during its time. Other Mouseketeers in the audience included Nancy Abbate, Billie Jean Beanblossom, Judy Harriet, Tommy Kirk and Paul Petersen.

Abbate was with the show only for the first season with the red team. Petersen, Harriet and Beanblossom were on the white team for one season. Tommy Kirk starred with Tim Considine on two serials as "The Hardy Boys." Kirk also played Travis in the Disney classic "Old Yeller" and was in other Disney classics such as "The Absent-Minded Professor." Petersen was on "The Donna Reed Show" and appeared on "Houseboat" with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. In 1962, he released a single that reached number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The front rows of the auditorium were filled with the families of all 14 of the Mouseketeers present. At the end of the panel, the Mouseketeers in the audience were called on stage. Becky Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, called up film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who presented each of them with a "Mouse-car," original awards found in the Disney archives. Walt Disney had originally intended to present his version of the Oscar to people who had given special service to the company with these but because of his death in 1965, never had the chance to use them all. Dave Mason accepted a Mousecar on behalf of Annette's family and the AnnetteFunicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. 

Maltin was the host on the DVD version of the "Walt Disney Treasures: The Adventures of Spin and Marty" and earlier in the day had hosted two panels on Stage 23: "Disney in Concert: A Silly Symphony Celebration." The "Silly Symphony" series were 75 animated short films produced by Walt Disney Productions between 1929 and 1939. "Silly Symphony" shorts won Academy Awards for Best Animated Shorts seven times and introduced the character Donald Duck.

In return for Maltin's surprise, the Mouseketeers had a surprise of their own and they performed the traditional song to make Maltin an honorary Mouseketeer, complete with him being crowned with Mouse-ears. Downstairs, during my last view of the exhibition hall, I heard a woman telling her companion she thought that all the original Mouseketeers were dead and corrected her. On the D23 Expo Stage 23, those Mouseketeers shared nothing but fond memories, spoke of lifelong friendships and still had the sparkle that made them great entertainers as children. The audience was enthusiastic and respectful and obviously also had fond memories of the TV show. 

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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